I am just returning from the annual Aspen Ideas Festival, high in the Rocky Mountains. I was on a panel on trust with David Leonhardt of The New York Times and Tom Wilson, the CEO of Allstate. Here are highlights of other panels I attended over the past two days.
1. Truth in Media — Geoff Stone, a constitutional law expert at the University of Chicago Law School, spoke about the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Opinion is not a matter of truth, it has a lower threshold. Religious belief is a matter of opinion; that was established by John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. From religion, the matter of truth moved to politics in the 1790s in arguing for freedom of the press. Jefferson believed that we should be able to argue our issues publicly, that the truth will emerge and get us to a better place.” He went on to warn that the marketplace of ideas has been fundamentally compromised by social media: “You hear only one side of the debate. There are bigger consequences of lies.” He said that the solution will not be found in the courts; we must educate the readers.
2. U.S. Foreign Policy — Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, interviewed by Rana Foroohar of the Financial Times, said: “Trump is not a reflection of broad U.S. opinion, he is a driver of his own agenda against trade (rejection of TPP), environmental protection (withdrawal from Paris Accords), opening to Russia.” He said that Russia is neither an ideological challenger nor a global threat but a “spoiler power” exerting its military might in Ukraine and its cyber weaponry in elections. Haass does not believe in the inevitability of a conflict with China as the rising world power. “The Silk Road concept is economic power,” he said. “China needs to loosen up its economy to spur growth, but that has political risks domestically.” The Middle East is the “worst part of the globe, with no shared sense of the rules nor set borders. The new leaders in Saudi Arabia are pushing hard against Iran, which is now allied with Turkey. The U.S. should not be bogged down in this region. Don’t try to do everything, focus on Europe and China.”
3. Jeff Koons and American Art — From a lower-middle-class family in rural Pennsylvania, Koons has emerged as one of America’s artistic geniuses. “My art allows people to accept themselves,” he said. “Whatever the viewer responds to is perfect for me.” He put himself in his own pieces, such as “Banality” and “Made in Heaven,” with his ex-wife, an Italian porn star, “because she had no inhibitions. I want to remove guilt and shame from the viewer. It is all about the eternal, the body and the ideas.” He said that he knows when he is finished with a piece: “There is a difference between excellence and perfection. Perfection is fetishism.” Koons is in the process of donating a massive statue, a bouquet of flowers grasped in a giant hand, to the City of Paris, to commemorate the recent losses of life to terrorism. “This is my small version of the torch in the Statue of Liberty, crafted in France,” he noted. “It has only 11 flowers, not 12, to show the sense of loss, but [also] to celebrate freedom and our connection as people.”
4. Sally Yates, former interim U.S. Attorney General, on her dismissal by President Trump: “The Department of Justice is different than other government agencies. It must decide without political pressures. This is not a law, it is the fabric of the rule of law. Justice requires impartiality in order to earn the confidence of the people. I refused to defend the travel ban in court because it was based on religion, not national security.” Neil Katyal, fomer U.S. Solicitor General, chimed in, “She declined to defend something so obviously unconstitutional.”
5. Early Childhood Development — Jackie Bezos of the Bezos Foundation and Professor James Heckman of the University of Chicago explained that in children ages 0-3, you cannot overstate the effect of trauma in adverse situations. Low-quality childcare has a long-term effect. “Enhanced interaction between parent and child leads to less jail time, social and emotional skills and economic success, even if it does not raise IQ,” said Heckman. “It also leads to improvement in health, including lower blood pressure, less overweight and stress.” We can promote social mobility by helping moms and kids at a young age.
6. Technology and Risk — Vivek Wadhwa of Carnegie Mellon University showed work underway in China known as CRISPR in which scientists are editing a human embryo and can modify living things (e.g., monkeys). He asked, “Is it OK to edit for IQ, for vision, for height?” He argued, “Our MDs are going to become software analysts. We are collecting all kinds of intimate data.” He was deeply provocative, stating, “Too many of our tech leaders are selfish and money-oriented.”
7. Solving Violence in Chicago — Sheriff Thomas Dart of Cook County, Ilinois, and two community leaders, Corey Brooks and Liz Dozier, spoke with Ron Brownstein of National Journal. Sheriff Dart described a toxic stew of low job opportunity, atomized gangs, single parent families with no father at home, the role of social media (a slight on Facebook leading to a shooting) and dysfunctional relationship with police. He said, “There is a very low closure rate on homicides, now down to 14 percent. So you take the law into your own hands to get revenge.” He went on to say that the courts are so overloaded, that in 80 percent of the cases, the accused has already served his potential sentence by the time the case comes up in court, so jail is not really a deterrent.
8. On Lying — “This is a common human trait,” said author Yudhijit Bhattacharjee. “We start to lie at age four or five to cope with power imbalance with parents. By the time we are adults, we are lying two to three times a day; these are mostly in the white lie category to lubricate social interaction. But we flex the same muscle when we start telling bigger lies.” He went on to assert that “we are inherently trusting of information we receive; we are a collaborative species.” He continued, “Are we living in a time of opinion, of indifference to truth, where spin is accepted as marketing because we don’t know for sure?”
It is deeply reinvigorating to be dropped back into an academic environment for two days. We need to consider the views of Stone, Koons, Wadhwa and Bhattacharjee especially and their implications for our industry. It may be fine for an artist to be indifferent to the reaction of the viewer to a work of art. A vigorous debate on issues is also beneficial. But the dark vision of a world without truth cannot be our future. We win with facts that are well expressed and frequently communicated; we lose with silence and indifference to the broader social context.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.